Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ebook Readers

Amazon just launched a new tablet computer to compete with the Barnes and Noble Nook Color and refreshed their line of e-ink Kindles, again competing with B&N's Nooks. The highlights are a new, lower price point for the readers and heavy integration with the Amazon cloud for the Fire - the new tablet.

B&N will be announcing a new Nook Color in time to compete for Christmas and there are rumors that Amazon will launch a better tablet early next year.

I've been doing most of my reading on electronic devices this year, using a Viewsonic G-Tablet and a Nook touch. The Nook is great for what it is. It is light. The battery lasts a long time. I can carry dozens of books with me at once which was very useful while vacationing on a schooner with very limited space. It also works well in the sunlight.

But I've recently gone back to using the G-Tablet for my reading. At night it is easier to read a lit screen than a reflective one. I also like having to do fewer page turns. I tend to hold my book or tablet in my left hand. I can turn the page on the Nook by pushing a button on the left side (there is also a button for going back) but I have to press harder. On the tablet I can swipe right-to-left and turn the page. On either device I can also touch the right side of the page to advance.

There are drawbacks to the tablet. It weighs a lot more so I have to rest it on my leg. The battery life is measured in hours instead of days (or weeks) so I have to plan ahead so I don't end up wanting to read when it needs charged. Fortunately I can simply switch devices and keep reading.

The Nook app for Android has matured a lot in the last six months. Most of my complaints have been resolved. There are still a few issues. If I go from portrait to landscape and back it almost always goes back a page. If I leave the app and come back I have to reopen the book that I was reading.

The Nook Touch could use a few software improvements. Syncing between the devices does not always work. It knows what the current book I am reading is but it makes it difficult to switch between multiple books. The main screen is too busy trying to sell me new books and does not have a history. I have resolved this by having a shelf in my library for current books but that substitutes a manual process for something that should be automatic. The Kindle app does this.

But these are quibbles. With the cost of entry for ebooks dropping, this will keep growing as the preferred medium for reading.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I recently wrote about superheroes' varying power levels. At some point, many heroes have gotten so powerful that the writers introduced a weakness. The most famous one is kryptonite but there have been a wide variety of weaknesses.

Kryptonite itself was introduced in the Superman radio show in 1943 and didn't make its way into the comics until 1949. By the 1960s it was almost a supporting character on its own. Everyone hand his brother had a piece of it. It also multiplied. The original green variety was joined by red kryptonite which caused temporary physical changes in Superman, gold kryptonite which removed a kryptonian's powers permanently and other varieties.

In addition to kryptonite, Superman was vulnerable to magic, This should have meant that he had no resistance to magic so he could be turned into a frog as easily as the next person. Some writers took it to the extreme that anything with magic origins could hurt Superman.

And there were red suns which caused frequent mistakes. Superman got his powers from radiation emanating from a yellow star. Red stars do not radiate on this frequency so Superman gained his powers from going to a planet with a yellow sun. Many writers reversed this and had the radiation from red stars weakening Superman.

Superman's chief rival, Captain Marvel, didn't need these weaknesses. He had one built-in. Normally he was an ordinary boy. If you knew who he was then all you had to do was kidnap Billy Batson and gaghis to keep him from saying "Shazam". The same was true for the rest of the Marvel family.

Wonder Woman had her own weaknesses. Her magic lariat let her command anyone it encircled. When her bracelets were chained together by a man she lost her powers. Naturally, people constantly used her own lariat on her or chained her bracelets.

Other heroes had more common weaknesses. John Jones, the Martian Manhunter lost his powers when near fire. Green Lantern's power ring was useless against anything colored yellow.

Metamorpho's version of kryptonite was the Orb or Ra.

Many Marvel heroes had their own weaknesses. Iron Man's batteries kept running down, threatening to stop his heart. Don Blake needed his cane in order to turn into Thor and had to keep hold of his hammer or turn back into Blake. Daredevil kept fighting in places that disrupted his radar sense. The Hulk turned back into Bruce Banner, sometimes in the middle of a fight. The Sub-Mariner lost his strength if he was out of water.

The Human Torch could only use his flame for a short time. The more he used it the faster it burned out. Also, it seemed like any amount of water could dowse his flame. Once a vase of water put it out.

Cyclopes and Marvel Girl were good for about one major feat. The strain of this weakened them, possibly causing them to black out.

In the early days of the Silver Age, heroes spent most of the time fighting their weakness more than villains. As time went on, the villains got stronger and there was less need for the weaknesses. Sometimes the weakness was written out. Kryptonite was destroyed for a while around 1970. Iron Man got better batteries and a heart transplant. Other times the weakness simply stopped being used as a plot device.

By the 1970s, new heroes stopped having built-in weaknesses. The exception was Superman. Kryptonite made a comeback. You just can't get rid of a supporting character like that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Monsters - Myth and Fiction

I saw an interesting comment by John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London. Some people complained when ordinary bullets killed his vampire.

When I made this film I remember some guy came up to me and said that at the end of the movie the werewolf is killed with bullets and you can't kill a werewolf with bullets. He went on and on about the fact that you can only kill a werewolf with silver bullets, which struck me as so funny. Because, it's like, 'Really? How many werewolves do you know?'

"Silver bullets specifically come from Curt Siodmak, who was the original screenwriter of The Wolf Man. In one of the sequels he talks about silver bullets being the way of killing werewolves. He talked about where that came from once with me and he said he happened to be listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio and he thought, 'Silver bullets, that's great!' So he made that up. So much of what we accept as folklore and mythology is invented by screenwriters.

In fact, most of what we know about monsters was made up for movies and fiction. Werewolves in myths were never unfortunate creatures who were victims of a curse. They were witches who changed shape with the help of a skin made from wolf or human skin. They changed into an actual wolf in order to inflict evil on their neighbors - things like killing livestock. When caught, their skin was seized and they were burned at the stake.

Bram Stoker made a serious effort at staying true to folklore but there are dozens of vampire myths and they are not consistent. Sometimes the only reason for driving a stake through a Vampire's heart was to pin him in his grave. A vampire had to be back in his grave by dawn and there were ways of keeping him out too late. If you spilled seeds or left a tangled string, he would be distracted tidying things up until dawn. One variety would strip his shroud off when he rose and put it back on when he went back to his grave. If you could find the shroud and hide it he would keep looking for it until it was too late.

Most vampires couldn't turn into other creatures but sometimes their heads were on backwards or they would have books for feet.

Stoker's version of the vampire and the stripped down Hollywood version was the accepted version for decades. It didn't really change until Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire showed that a writer could change the rules. Since then, every writer decides how vampires work. The only constants are their aversion to sunlight and thirst for blood. Now some vampires just sparkle in sunlight instead of dissolving.

Werewolves' makeover came later and the Hollywood idea of werewolves being cursed was never lost. Starting in the 1980s, writers started taking advantage of research on real wolves and making their werewolves act more like the real thing. Before the 1980s werewolves were always solitary. Since the 1990s they are almost always in a pack.

While it is generally accepted that silver bullets hurt werewolves, vampires were not always susceptible. In Love at First Bite, Dracula is shot in the heart with three silver bullets by Dr. Rosenburg. Dracula's response, "No, Rosenberg, that is a werewolf ." As he is being hauled away (for shooting someone in public), Rosenburg says, "No harm done! The man's all right! This was for a werewolf! No problem! Calm down! Take it easy! I'm a doctor! I know where I'm going!" Since then most fiction has vampires affected by silver. It makes a convenient substitute for religious objects in these multicultural times.

Monday, September 19, 2011


There are only a few episodes left of the first season of Alphas. It has already been renewed for a second season. The first season has been pretty good. It has avoided the pitfalls of Heroes and No Ordinary Family.

Most episodes have focused on the Alphas' personalities rather than on their powers although this is tricky since their powers can affect their personalities. Gary, the dyslexic who can interact with electromagnetic communications, went from being annoying to lovable. Most of the others have mellowed a bit also.

I am a fan of continuity but this can be overdone or turn into a curse. The last two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had too much continuity and episodes blurred into chapters of a miniseries. This hurt it a lot since the episodes in the first five seasons had a strong format that mixed humor and adventure. Without the format, the humor got lost and the show turned dreary.

Heroes and No Ordinary Family were shows that were difficult to come in on. If you missed an episode you were lost. The show Lost avoided this because no one ever knew what was going on, anyway.

Heroes also only had one good story arc, the heroes discovering their powers and coming together to stop the destruction of New York. They used that up the first season and were never able to recreate it. The arc was more important than the episode.

Alphas has three arcs going on but they are background and easily picked up. The first is their transformation from evaluating alphas to being the front line against rogue alphas. The second is what happens to the rogues. The third is the resistance movement known as Red Flag. Our group of alphas stands between the government and the resistance. This is a position the X-Men held for years.

But the focus in each episode is on the individuals. Last week featured a member of Red Flag with sonic powers and an assassin who could not be seen. The Red Flag member insisted that he respected the Alphas and tried to get them to join him. He seemed quite reasonable. Then we met the assassin who also seemed reasonable. The plot was mainly about who to believe? That sort of show can have staying power.

Alphas comes after Eureka and Warehouse 13. Theoretically it takes place in the same world. A supporting character from Warehouse 13 has appeared in Alphas (and there have been Eureka/Warehouse 13 crossovers). Despite this, Alphas has a different tone. It is much more serious and comes as a relief after two hours of comedy/adventure.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

3D Movies

Slate has an article on Who Killed 3-D? When they say "killed" they are talking about receipts per screen. A couple of years ago a screen showing 3D saw a significant box office increase over screens showing the same movie in 2D. That has vanished and, in some cased, reversed. This Summer's Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean releases earned less on their 3D showings setting new lows for 3D releases.

So what's going on? Slate offers four suspects: an increase in the 3D premium, a flooded market, pickier customers, and the lowering quality of 3D movies. I think that all of these are factors but there is more to it.

Personally, I am sick of 3D releases. When they first started there was a modest premium and only suitable movies were shown in 3D. As the craze took off, the 3D premium was raised. I have been at some movies where 3D added 40%-50% to the ticket price. Very few movies are worth that extra. We have gotten to the point where we see if we can go to a 2D showing instead of a 3D one. The theaters have anticipated this and adjusted their schedules. The 7:00-8:00 showings which are the most popular are devoid of 2D offerings. So you have a choice - go to a 2D movie at an inconvenient time or pay the 3D surcharge. This means that 3D movies are doing even worse than the statistics would indicate. It might also be keeping people home since the third option is to skip it and wait for the DVD.

Too often 3D adds little or nothing to the movie. We saw Pirates of the Caribbean 4 in 3D. This movie was actually shot in 3D instead of being shot in 2D and converted like Harry Potter. This gives the 3D a more natural look which actually hurts it. Why pay more for 3D if you don't notice it? The movie managed to work in a few swords coming out of the screen. Otherwise the 3D it didn't add much.

I was impressed with the 3D in Captain America. This raises a different question - is it a good thing for the 3D to distract you from the plot? Color movies went through this phase. Through the 1950s, color was considered a distraction. Serious movies were filmed in black and white. You can see echoes of that today. 3D movies are mainly CGI or adventure movies. Part of this is that the process itself is costly so only potential blockbusters are given the treatment. It is cheaper to make a CGI movie in 3D than a live action one so they tend to be 3D.

Horror movies are also being given the 3D treatment. Fright Night was only available in 3D. In fact the full title is "Fright Night 3D". It might as well be called Fight Night Splattervision. Most of the movie takes place in fairly small rooms so the 3D is wasted. The only time it is noticeable is when a vampire dies. That is accompanied with splashed of goop and sparks flying into the audience.

Had the studios and theaters restrained themselves, 3D would have been a small but viable market. Instead, by overpricing and oversupplying, they threaten to eliminate it.

It would be nice if that happened by next Summer's blockbuster season.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Villains and Power Levels

Last week I wrote about power levels and superheros. Now I will take a quick look at villains.

Often the power level of a villain doesn't matter. Golden Age heroes were almost always the strongest character. The villain was a mastermind of some sort. There was never any question of Lex Luthor winning a fight with Superman or the Joker beating Batman. The few exceptions were with an evil version of the hero like Black Adam who was an evil version of Captain Marvel.

Things got more interesting in the Silver Age, especially at Marvel where heroes often fought stronger villains. This led to some great stories. In his first appearance, the Scorpion beat Spider-Man decisively twice before Spider-Man rallied and won by out-fighting the Scorpion. In the Abomination's  first appearance he literally beat the Hulk to death (the Hulk's heart was restarted with some friendly gamma rays). But this raises the problem, where do you go from there? After being beaten by Spider-Man twice, the Scorpion moved down, taking on Captain America and the Falcon. The Abomination appeared multiple times but the only time he had a chance against the Hulk was when the Hulk had reverted to his earlier, weaker gray version.

Once a villain has been defeated, the follow-up is usually anti-climactic. One way around this is to send the villain against weaker heroes. This was done with the Scorpion so often that he had to start getting power upgrades to keep him menacing. An different tactic is to have villains team up. Mr. Hyde and the Cobra were defeated individually by Thor so they teamed up to fight him. Later Hyde menaced Spider-Man.

Some villains manage to have a power upgrade and graduate to the next class up. The Rhino started as a Spider-Man villain but was given a gamma ray upgrade and has taken on the Hulk. He lost but he is clearly out of Spider-Man's class - which would make for a good Spider-Man story if the two ever ran into each other.

After too many defeats, a villain can become a joke. The Ringmaster's Circus of Evil started with the Hulk and took on nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe including Howard the Duck.

Some villains manage to stay menacing for long periods by combining traits. Dr. Doom is a mastermind but has enough weaponry in his armor to take on nearly anyone. Dr. Octopus usually has some sort of master plan but his tentacles are stronger than Spider-Man. The Mandarin has ten rings of great power but seldom engages in direct combat. Even though all of these characters have been defeated multiple times, their personal power is a fall-back rather than their main thrust.

Sometimes it is enough to foil the mastermind's plot. Doom seldom engages in personal combat after a scheme has failed.

The ultimate examples of this are the top-tier villains, ones like Thanos and Darkseid (although Thanos probably started as a copy of Darkseid). Both had shown themselves capable of taking on the top heroes. Thanos in particular has taken on Thor and the Thing simultaneously and won (although he lost to an alternate version of Adam Warlock). These are top-tier masterminds. Their plots threaten all of existence. When they lose they either retire to plot again or are swept up in a backlash and vanish.

Not matter how threatening a villain is, each defeat diminishes him. The writers for Dr. Who have retired the Daleks for a while because they suffered from over-exposure. Appearing more times than any other villain means being defeated more times. Dr. Doom suffered from this. He fought the Fantastic Four multiple times in a row in their early days. At the time he was just another mastermind in a suit of armor. It wasn't until Stan Lee limited his appearances and made him a foreign monarch that he became a really memorable villain.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Hero Power Levels

Marvel recently put up a batch of early Golden Age comics on the digital site. Reading these got me to thinking about relative power levels.

Superman quickly comes to mind. Ever wonder why someone who flies would ever need to "leap tall buildings in a single bound"? It's because he couldn't fly when that line was written. He could run very fast (faster than a speeding bullet) and leap great distances but he could not fly. That came a few months later. Captain Marvel made the same transition. Early on he needed a space ship to travel to Mars (or Venus - I'm doing this from memory). Later he could make the trip under his own power.

Superman gained some powers along the way. He didn't have heat vision at first but it occurred to someone that strong x-rays heat things. Later writers explained that he actually projected heat from his eyes. Somewhere along the lines he also developed telescopic vision and super hearing. He could even throw his voice to a location hundreds of miles away (through solid objects) using super ventriloquism.

Given the world's strongest lungs, it made sense that he could blow harder than others. This turned into super breath. Superman was able to store huge quantities of air in his lungs and expel it at hurricane force. He could even provide an atmosphere for an earth-like planet with a few trips from a gas giant.

Until I read the Human Torch's early appearances I hadn't realized that he had made the same power gain. In his first few appearances his flames made him lighter than normal which allowed him to ran fast. He could outrun a fast car or a train. But he could not fly. His second appearance was fighting someone with an airplane who kept leaving the Torch behind.

Power levels can go both ways. The Sub-Mariner started out as Timely's strongest (anti-)hero but he got weaker. Eventually there wa a story where he was summoned by Atlantis's Emperor who pointed out that Namor was barely stronger than an ordinary Atlantean. Atlantis's scientists had devised a treatment that returned him to his original strength level.

By the Silver Age, Superman had unlimited power. You name it and he could do it. The same was true for Supergirl and Mon-el. They could move planets or re-light suns. In Superman's world, super-strength was a binary value. You either had it or you didn't. If you had it then it was a waste of time trying to overpower someone else who was super. It would cause too much collateral damage.

Marvel was much more restrained. Originally the Thing could only lift a few tons and falling from a great height would hurt him. He kept getting stronger until the Marvel Universe Handbook topped him out at 80 tons. At the same time he got a lot tougher. You could knock him through several buildings followed by a fall and he would get up again.

The Hulk was always the strongest there was but that didn't mean that much at first. He could be imprisoned in a cave. When they were first created both the original Abomination and the Red Hulk were stronger than the Hulk but both were eventually beaten.

Spider-Man started out pretty strong but seemed to get weaker in the 1970s. It got to the point where a thug with a fancy name (such as Man-Mountain Marco) could give him a fight. A change in writers and artists fixed that and by the 1980s he could hold his own against Mr. Hyde or Firelord. His webbing also got weaker and this was fixed by mixing a stronger batch.

When DC rebooted the DC Universe they weakened Superman. He could be hurt if you hit him hard enough. He needed oxygen. He could no longer fly faster than the speed of light or travel through time. Super ventriloquism was never spoken of again. This lasted for some time but writers kept stretching his powers a bit at a time until he was close to his original power levels.

Some heroes had their power levels changed as plot points. At first Ghost Rider could create solid objects out of flame including his motorcycle. He lost most of those powers and could only project flame. This started increasing again. Apparently it was tied to the strength that his inner demon had. The more control it had the stronger his powers were.

Then there are the heroes whose power levels constantly change. Originally the Dazzler could turn sound into light. She could use this as a light show while performing or she could distract an opponent with it. If she had enough sound she could turn it into a laser. At first she could not store energy so she had to find sources of sound. One time she made Spider-Woman sing (badly) in order to cut them out of a trap. A few issues later she absorbed Klaw who was made of solid sound and gained enough power to be recognized as a peer by Galactus. That changed her and she was able to store sound but she used up the energy she got from Klaw.

With Daredevil, it wasn't enough that he was blind. He kept running into situations that interfered with his radar sense. He got over that around the time he changed from his yellow and black outfit to his red one.

Similarly, Iron Man's transistors kept running down in the middle of a fight. This is one place where a hero gaining power over time makes sense. As technology improved, Iron Man got stronger.

There is an art to keeping heroes weak enough to build suspense. Often a hero got too strong and an artificial weakness had to be introduced. Superman had kryptonite, Thor had to keep hold of his hammer. Green Lantern had to avoid yellow. While these can make an interesting story, they are easy to overuse.

The same is true for villains. A villain may start out as powerful but each time he is defeated he becomes less menacing. The writers in Dr. Who decided to retire the Daleks. They started out as the ultimate killing machines but they have appeared more often than any other Dr. Who villain which means they have been defeated more often. I'll talk about villains later.